Review by Raphael Kohn
It’s rare to see Spanish-language plays on the greatest stages in London. Yet, for one week only, Cheek By Jowl (whose previous productions, including Shakespeare’s greatest works, have been international hits) is bringing Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1636 play La Vida Es Sueño (Life Is A Dream) to the stage at the Barbican Theatre. I arrived with little idea of what to expect, and – to an extent – I still don’t know what I saw.
The most famous play by Calderón, Life Is A Dream is a philosophical work, analysing the themes of free will, family, and reality. Following the (fictional) royal family of Poland, Life Is A Dream sees Basilio, the King of Poland, having locked his son Segismundo in a tower to prevent him from fulfilling a prophecy to overthrow the King, challenged when he allows Segismundo to become aware of his royalty as a test of this prophecy. When Segismundo fights for his rights, he is sedated and returned to his cell, but broken out by the people of Poland who protest the loss of the prince’s rights.
The plot is confusing enough to begin with, complicated further by sub-plots involving seduction and love. The challenge, therefore, is to make this 17th-century meditation on philosophical ideas relevant in the 21st century and accessible to a modern-day audience. To do this, Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s production sets the action somewhat in the present, clothing the actors in modern-day suits and military apparel and giving them guns and a radio.
Completing this modern reinvention is a reasonably simple set, with a line of green doors at the back of what becomes the playing space, actually fairly close to the audience, reducing the size of the Barbican’s cavernous theatre stage significantly. This is most obvious when the lighting design deliberately illuminates the bare walls of the back of the stage, a clever and inspired moment of design that grounds the story in its theatricality. The set is otherwise simple and is, on the whole, complemented well by Ganecha Gil’s lighting design, which relies on a set of lights on either side of the stage, most often illuminating the actors from the sides rather than from the front. The house lights periodically turn on and off as the actors address the audience – a smart trick the first time it is used, but risks becoming repetitive as the show continues.
The modernisation stops there, however, with Calderón’s original lines being spoken in their original language as written almost 400 years ago. To make this comprehensible to English-only speakers like myself, a captioning board is helpfully displayed above the stage, translating each line into English. However, as it is hung so high, it often became difficult to follow both the onstage action and the English translation simultaneously, and I often felt I was missing moments that would otherwise be grippingly interesting. Similarly, while some moments played in the aisle were of great comedic and dramatic value to the production, it became impossible to focus both on the acting onstage and the captions, risking losing much of the audience.
The captioning was also a tiny bit behind the performers throughout the show, which was fine in some of the slower scenes, but as the energy built, and characters began to interject more frequently, it became impossible to know who exactly was saying what, and instead the dialogue became completely lost to me. It would also have been helpful to know which character was saying each line on the captioning board, instead of just the words being spoken, which would have helped a non-Hispanophone such as myself follow the action more closely.
The cast are mostly brilliant, with Ernesto Arias’ King Basilio remaining onstage throughout as a witness to every moment that takes place, omnipresently seeing and judging the action. His polar opposite, Alfredo Noval’s Segismundo, brings hyperactive mayhem to his role, excelling most in his moments of physical comedy as he interacts with the audience, including stealing items of their clothing.
Cheek By Jowl clearly has an impressive history of groundbreaking productions, and a clear creative vision of what they wanted to accomplish with this production. I was truly impressed by quite a lot of it, but the captioning issues prevented me from loving this production more. Spanish-speaking audience members will have an excellent time there, however, and I’m sure those who can understand it better than I with the captioning will enjoy this exploration of deeply philosophical ideas immensely.
Tickets for ‘Life Is A Dream’ can be purchased here: https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2023/event/cheek-by-jowl-life-is-a-dream
Photos by Javier Naval.